Despite President Obama's recent call for further reform of the veteran care system, nearly 900,000 military veterans still have pending health care applications with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA inspector general’s office confirmed in a new report.
More than 300,000 of those veterans are believed to be dead, but problems with the VA’s data – including inconsistent application dates, unevaluated records, and missing information – make it difficult to know how many former service members died while waiting for a response.
"These are not veterans waiting for care. These are veterans who are applying for the privilege of waiting for care," explained CNN's Drew Griffin. "And as of last year, there [were] more than 867,000 of them whose applications just to get in line at the VA were not processed."
Veterans returning from combat in the Middle East and Afghanistan are suffering from the enrollment system’s massive backlog, said Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center, to CNN.
"People who fought, and who earned the right to VA health care, were never given VA health care," said Mr. Davis, a whistleblower who testified against the VA before Congress last year. "They literally died while waiting for VA to process their health care application."
The findings suggest that the VA has a long way to go to get former troops reliable and timely medical care, despite changes made in the wake of the scandal over false records and long wait times that wracked the VA last year. The report ended with recommendations for a sweeping overhaul of the department’s records management system – and warned that creating a new system could take years.
The VA’s Health Eligibility Center "has not effectively managed its business processes to ensure the consistent creation and maintenance of essential data," acting inspector general Linda Halliday wrote in the report.
"Due to the amount and age of the ES [enrollment system] data, as well as lead times required to develop and implement software solutions, a multiyear project management plan is needed to address the accuracy of pending ES records and improve the usefulness of ES data."
In addition, the center "has not adequately established procedures to identify individuals who have died, including those with pending health care enrollment records," she added.
The inspector general’s report – a response to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs' request to investigate a whistleblower's allegations of record falsification and mismanagement at the Health Eligibility Center – is the latest to criticize the VA and its health administration, which oversees more than 1,700 health care facilities and serves nearly 9 million veterans every year.
A wide-ranging audit released June last year found 57,000 veterans had been waiting 90 days or more for their first medical appointments, while another 64,000 who had applied for health care in the last decade had never seen a doctor.
Another investigation, ordered by Mr. Obama, cited “corrosive culture” and “chronic systemic failures” at the VA, including cases that alleged threats to patient health or safety, backlash against employees, and an inability to connect budget needs to real outcomes.
Since then, the VA has seen two senior officials step down from their posts. In August 2014, Obama signed a bipartisan veterans’ care bill that approved more than $16 billion toward the hiring of more medical professionals and set new regulations around the firing of negligent VA executives.
The agency has also acknowledged that its enrollment process is confusing and that the data integrity and quality of its enrollment system "are in need of significant improvement,” VA spokeswoman Walinda West told The Associated Press Wednesday.
She added that as of June 30, the VA had contacted 302,045 veterans by mail, asking them to submit required documents to establish eligibility. The VA has received 36,749 responses and enrolled 34,517 veterans to date, Ms. West said.
"As we continue our work to contact veterans, our focus remains on improving the enrollment system to better serve veterans," she said.
In a joint statement, Senators Johnny Isakson (R) of Georgia and Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said that the report points to “a significant failure on behalf of past leadership at the Health Eligibility Center and deficient oversight by the VA central office.
"We urge the VA to implement the inspector general’s recommendations quickly to improve record keeping at the VA and ensure that this level of blatant mismanagement does not happen again."